Turn West for serious comedy

“Before the Teenage Merchandising Turtles there was Batman, the original Hero of Hype. This is the second of his 3 Ocean games (sandwiched between 3D and The Movie) with 2 separate scenarios and the action laid out in comic strip panels.” Your Sinclair

Batman the movie – the 1989 revision – won’t be released in cinemas until next year so no-one knows what to expect, or how a game could be moulded around it. Consequently, Batman the Caped Crusader (ETA Christmas 1988 for the Amiga, October for the 8-bit games) draws inspiration from the comic book, and in turn the ’60s TV series and 1966 movie starring Adam West and Burt Ward. Well, kind of.

“The game is based around the comic book adventures of DC Comic’s legendary character, as opposed to the television or ‘movie’ (film) version.”Joffa Smith

That it (just about) features Robin is a giveaway clue as he won’t appear again in a Batman movie until 1995. We’ll all be riding around in spaceships by then! Incidentally, comic book Robin – in ‘Batman: A Death in the Family’ – is to be brutally murdered by The Joker in December 1988. By popular public demand! Just over half of the 10,000 votes cast made their wishes known with a throat-cutting gesticulation. Thus it will be so.

Nevermind, Batman has co-starred multiple Robins over the years so the sidekick angle doesn’t expire should one be ‘written out’. In any case, the super-protege voted to death was subsequently resurrected as the Red Hood, a vigilante antihero. There have been several more since including a female Robin, Bruce Wayne’s son, a Bluebird, and even a gang of Robins.

Likewise with Batman himself; you could say Batman is a philosophy, not any one particular person.

Appropriate then that Robin finds himself in a similarly delicate dilemma in Caped Crusader. Fail to rescue him and we’re treated to a still of Batman mourning at Jason’s grave. That will be Jason Todd, the second Robin, having been passed the baton by Dick Grayson, Robin I, in the ’80s.

“Depending on which side you load, you’re either trying to foil The Penguin’s latest world domination plot, or else out to congratulate The Joker on disposing of that irritating git who’s been tagging along with you for years… (what? Oh, sorry)… or else out to apprehend The Joker to free your kidnapped buddy Robin. (Ahem.)”

Your Sinclair (92%, April 1991)

“The lack of a Robin character and the obscurity of some of the puzzle solutions are the only drawbacks that I can find in this otherwise superb licence.”

The One (84%, December 1988)

Robin comprised 50% of the legendary crime-fighting double act in the comic books, as well as the 1966 movie, ingeniously entitled ‘Batman: The Movie’. It was an odd naming convention even back then seeing as Batman had already starred in two movies by this stage (The Batman in 1943 and Batman and Robin in 1949… I think Robin was involved in the latter too). Even stranger then that next year’s addition to the collection is also to be known as ‘Batman: The Movie’. Did the producers not do their homework?

Taking its cues from classic Batman media, it makes sense that the masked guardian angel is seen kitted out in his original grey and blue attire and plods about comedically sporting a steely perma-stare of determination. It’s almost as though he’s a hero on a Crusade. Fancy that!

“A game about a delinquent millionaire who gets his kicks by prancing around in a puffy outfit?” – Commodore Format (91%, February 1991)

First of all, you can’t say that, that’s homophobic! And anyway, you can mock all you like, he gets the job done, employing a combination of highly tuned gumshoe skills and pure brawn. He’s not known as ‘the world’s greatest detective’ for nuffink you know. Oh, and ‘Scrappy-Doo’ chimes in occasionally too.

“Holy broken bones, this game is amazing. It features all the best aspects of an arcade adventure while capturing the magic of a comic strip. Batman is alive and well and fighting it out on your ST screen – a must for my son’s birthday and for daddy to play in secret.”

Atari ST User (90%, April, 1989)

Unlike the rigid, ‘flowing’ sewer sludge, our protagonist sprite is superbly animated, capturing the light-hearted spirit of the TV show immaculately. Adam’s pantomime faux-intensity and overwrought, ponderous delivery is sheer genius! Portraying the character with such timeless aplomb it’s no wonder he became typecast. Sometimes you just can’t get rid of a plomb.

“The screen display is great – there’s even an option to play with the backgrounds in mono or full colour.” – ACE (Spectrum, 90%, January 1989)

Paying homage to Batman’s origins, each scene unravels within a separate window, reminiscent of a comic book cell, with the previously visited areas relegated to the background via a clever visual effect akin to the Pointillism technique.

Karen Davies who devised the graphics for the Commodore 64 version, in an interview with Retro Gamer (May 2014), cites Batman as her “favourite C64 game”, not least owing to the unorthodox presentation. “As I remember, it was Joffa and Chas who came up with that idea, it made sense visually and could speed up processing time.”

“Indeed, the screen display utilises pop-up windows that overlay in a similar (ish) style to the panels of a comic book.”Joffa Smith

It’s not continuous, push or flick scrolling, and would rarely be seen again in computer games as they evolved technically, although Sega’s Comix Zone enhanced the concept in 1995.

Perhaps the trick was retired with good reason; this novel approach does waste a great deal of screen real estate. You don’t notice or mind so much here because there’s no ugly HUD to draw our attention to the deficit. It’s arty, offbeat and endearing. Also, when implemented in a game that unfolds this slowly it’s not essential that we have the facility to see Batman’s adversaries approaching in the distance.

“The last Spectrum title was Batman The Caped Crusader. I was supposed to be writing it on the ST but the Speccy programmer cocked it up!” Joffa Smith (ZX Specticle interview)

“I had started developing the Atari ST version, but the ‘powers that be’ didn’t like the quality of the current ZX Spectrum version so I got demoted to sort it out.”Joffa Smith

Having initially been developed on the Spectrum, then ported to the Atari ST and subsequently the Amiga by Frank Robinson with all the appropriate enhancements, it’s easy to see how this resource-conserving style would have emerged. Perhaps then Caped Crusader’s striking screen layout owes more to the Spectrum’s lack of memory muscle than aesthetic choices. It’s what sets the game apart, so why would you abandon this USP when stepping up to the 16-bit systems?

“The budget box art – joystick only – my arse!” Joffa Smith

Why did Spectrum game publishers peddle this fib? I’ve seen that elsewhere on 8-bit game covers.

In contrast to next year’s ‘game of the movie’, Caped Crusader is an action-puzzle-adventure of sorts, demanding endless exploration, juggling of objects, kapowing (without the exclamation captions), and a Batcave-worth of patience.

Aside from all the bare-knuckle combat, it shares a fair bit in common with The Oliver Twins’ Dizzy. Not least because neither allow us to drive the Batmobile, ride the Batcycle, fly the Batplane (the first-ever Batvehicle) or spray delinquent sealife with Batshark repellent.

Objects must be collected, temporarily stored in our 10 item inventory, then transported to an area where they can be usefully deployed. Irritatingly, tapping our inventory entails regular visits to an entirely separate screen, abruptly yoinking us loose from the carefully constructed illusion. Not an arrangement that supports immersive make-believe.

“The game plays well, though it is sometimes annoying to try a low kick on an opponent and end up in the utilities screen.” – ACE (Spectrum, 90%, January 1989)

“I have two other complaints: There is no pause button, and it’s too easy to move accidentally to the status screen while fighting enemy thugs. Other than these complaints, Batman, The Caped Crusader is a great graphics adventure.”

Compute’s Amiga Resource (70%, December 1989)

Given that our pockets aren’t bottomless, Batman’s inventory must be carefully managed, pruning any objects that are surplus to requirements. Of course, you won’t know which items are past their use-by date prior to reaching the end, so may find yourself backtracking to recover discarded kit.

Like a newborn baby, Batman needs to eat 3000 times a day to maintain his forever-dwindling life-force, and can’t do that if he has no teeth, so make sure you collect them! Er… *shrug* it’s the first puzzle. I dunno. Batman began as a tongue-in-cheek farce, he wasn’t always the ‘dark knight’. Which reminds me, make sure you grab the torch.

In lieu of Farley’s Rusks Batman munches on junk food like sweets, toffee apples and crisps. Forget to feed him and his skin gruesomely erodes from the Batface avatar found at the bottom of the inventory screen, until the last remnant peels from his chin and Batman expires. I don’t remember that happening in the comic books, although I must confess, I’ve not read all ten million of them stretching back to 1939.

Our energy face-metre being stowed away in the inventory screen adds an element of suspense since we can’t immediately judge our health status without breaking away from the action. Nevertheless, I’m not so sure we needed the extra anxiety of being kept in the dark what with all the rats, oversize-pantsed psycho clowns and clockwork exterminator penguins on the loose!

 

Designed by Batman fans, Special FX, over the course of six months, I’m sure there’s an esoteric connection between junk food and the source material to be found somewhere. “There’s every probability it will be them” Gary Bracey stated, confirming that Special FX were initially also expected to work on the follow-up Batgame based on the Michael Keaton/Jack Nicholson Warner Bros. movie. Although, as fate would have it, there was no crossover in the development teams of the two projects. Batman 2 (released on the advent of Batman’s 50th anniversary) was an in-house Ocean creation to the core. Yes, I’ve given up pretending it’s 1988 and I’m looking to the future with a wide-eyed, clueless sense of wonder. What a stupid gimmick, who does that?

Judging by the preview article photos, Caped Crusader was assembled in the team’s own basement Batcave at the Albert Docks, Liverpool. Home to a fleet of duckboats (not much like The Penguin’s), a Beatles museum, and also where Fred Talbot used to present the weather balancing on a giant rubbery floating map you’ll recall if you lived in the UK around this time. It was a short segment nestled within the ‘This Morning with Richard and Judy’ TV show. You’ve probably seen the infamous clip immortalising a streaker running riot across the precariously bobbing topography on live TV. Don’t look at me like that, it did happen!

More relevantly it was the place in which that lionized picture of Joffa Smith was taken for the Caped Crusader preview article published in The Games Machine (November 1988). Just another occasion on which he really didn’t want to be in the limelight so had to be held in shot by his colleagues. It’s one of the few pictures you’ll find of him anywhere online as a result. It’s also horribly grainy and tiny so would tarnish all my beautiful pixels if I inserted it here. 😉

That Special FX and Ocean were able to produce an officially licenced Batman game at all (well, three actually), is thanks to Jon Ritman who coded the original (teleport-tastic) isometric action-adventure in 1986.

Dave Ward – Ocean co-founder – proposed that Jon create something similar to Knight Lore, but not so close that it would be accused of blatant plagiarism. While Jon embraced the style and genre of the pioneering Speccy classic, he hit upon the idea to model it around the campy ’60s Batman TV show he loved watching as a kid.

What he devised also revolves around rescuing Robin, and all the critics loved it. Magazine plaudits and impressive review scores ensured that 3D Batman and his broken Batcraft reached number two in the UK sales charts. It was from these solid foundations that Head Over Heels emanated; another fondly remembered triumph for the Drummond/Ritman tag-team.

Speaking to Retro Gamer in November 2013 (partly about his collaboration with drummer/artist Bernie Drummond), Jon explained how everything fell into place…

“We then discussed the fact that we could actually work together and do this and tried to think about what to actually do and at some point I kind of randomly suggested Batman. Bernie did a little character and I took it up to Ocean. The engine wasn’t written at this stage and we just had Batman running around in an environment similar to the Knight Lore screens. Anyway we showed it to David Ward and he immediately started singing the theme tune and Ocean set to work getting the rights.”

Jon expands on the story in audio format for the RGDS and Retro Hour podcasts should you wish to delve deeper.

DC Comics and Ocean forged a mutually beneficial relationship, the games evolving along with it. Not necessarily becoming more ambitious, just very different from one another. Jon’s seminal contribution set the bar extremely high from the outset, making it tricky to settle on a favourite.

“The best of the Batgame trio (3D was too silly, The Movie too serious), it has a nice line in humour and oozes playability. In short, the spankiest comic conversion since Dan Dare and a des res in barg city.”

Your Sinclair delivers their verdict of Caped Crusader (92%, April 1991)

Caped Crusader is rather like a two-act play, on the Spectrum loaded via separate sides of the same cassette tape. It’s Amiga counterpart is likewise split down the middle with each chapter selected independently from the main menu. In each instance, we play as Batman, though have a choice to make between which of two iconic arch-nemesises we kick into touch; The Joker or The Penguin. Half of the United Underground!

Correction; kick, throw, punch, and Batarang into touch. Don’t forget that Batman is an expert martial artist in the comics, as well as a polymath and master sleuth (me too since I got a cowl from Poundland for Halloween). We can perform a low leg/rat-sweeping kick, a high kick alternative and a single kind of punch, aside from (ill-advisedly) deploying weapons.

“Batman is a decidedly short fat sprite, so perhaps it’s logical that his punches have little effect on the enemies. His energy takes a pounding by the constantly marauding minions who, like the Caped Crusader, are colourful, defined and walk with a loping swagger. Few sound effects and middle-of-the-road music reside.”

The Games Machine (71%, C64, February 1989)

In line with the philanthropic ‘Batman does no harm’ myth we never actually kill anyone, only temporarily stun them to allow Batman to pass by unscathed. It wasn’t until the later movies transformed Batman into a dionysian assassin that his arrest-rather-than-slaughter ethos was brought into question. Or did that begin with Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns in 1986? ‘Return’ is the keyword since ‘Bat-Man’ had no such qualms over murdering criminals in the early days of his pulp fiction inspired alternative career as the “grim avenger of the night”. Detective Comics #38 marked the pivotal moment when Batman turned to the light side, discarding guns and death-dealing.

Nevertheless, Caped Crusader is old-school Batman, pixelised. This explains why the grenade found in the Batcave is a useless herring of the red variety. While Batman later acquires a gun, it’s only to be used in a fairground duckshoot digression. Whacking goons, fruitless as it seems, remains essential since it shakes loose edible goodies consumed at will to restore our health. Ensure it’s only eaten when you’re about to keel over, otherwise, you won’t feel the benefit.

“We’ve got fun fight sequences, but none of the heavy stuff” is the way Special FX/Ocean co-founder and SFX MD, Paul Finnegan, described it (see TGM preview), alluding to the restrained violence motif stipulated by DC Comics. That caveat aside, they were very ‘hands off’ where the game’s development was concerned. As long as Batman was recognisable as the character from the comics and portrayed in a positive light, they didn’t interfere.

Joffa expounded further, “It’s a bit of a moral thing. If you use the knife, you lose power”, confirming that, while violence is an option, it’s deterred, a last resort. Rather, the knife is primarily intended to be used for cutting Robin loose from captivity. Our Batarang is a better option whenever non-lethal force is called for.

“DC Comics were very protective towards their image of ‘Batman’. We were under strict orders not to use excessive, unjustified violence, and all the character graphics had to be approved before we could go and publish. That’s why robots feature quite heavily as baddies.”Joffa Smith

Disappointingly we only encounter one type of henchgoon per campaign; goofy clowns or common or garden suited and booted stooges. “The troublesome twosome” you could say, except that’s how the manual describes the collective storylines…

The Penguin: A Bird in the Hand

“Commissioner Gordon calls you with the news that the Penguin is back. He’s set himself up as a respectable umbrella merchant. But the commissioner is sure the Penguin’s factory is just a cover for his plot to take over the world with an army of robot penguins. The only way to thwart the penguin’s plot is to destroy his master computer.

To get to the Penguin’s master computer, you have to make your way to the factory through streets and across rooftops crawling with the Penguin’s thugs. Once you’ve discovered how to get into the factory, you can search out the master computer and destroy it. But don’t think it will be easy. The Penguin has more than one surprise waiting for you.”

“Also, a cut down version of ‘A Bird In The Hand’ was released on a ‘cover tape’ by Sinclair User magazine, if I’m not mistaken (apologies if I am). Entitled ‘Idiots Play To Win‘ this had a number of different graphics, including Catwoman, that we were unable to use in the released version for one reason or another.”Joffa Smith

 

 

The Joker: A Fete Worse than Death

“You don’t need Commissioner Gordon to tell you about the Joker’s latest feat of sleight of hand – he’s kidnapped Robin! Your search leads you through the sewers of Gotham City to the Fair, where the fun house isn’t so much fun and a ride on the rollercoaster could be your last.”

Whilst these plots borrow elements from Batman lore they don’t appear to be based on specific comic book publications. Instead, evoking prevalent themes, and predicaments faced by the dynamic duo. Clearly not impressed with Robin’s contribution to the franchise, Special FX only included him very briefly in one of the scenarios. Robin is “a hanger-on” Paul Finnegan believed, hence dispensable. (The One, December 1988)

Robin serves as the damsel in distress to be rescued, so as you’d imagine, the game is over once he’s found and emancipated. Or slain as in DC Comics no. 428. And no, Batman and Robin aren’t a couple. Why would you say that? They’re not. Stop it.

If you’re wondering why an elephant factors into one of the conundrums to be solved keep in mind that Joffa once worked for Rage and they emerged from ‘Elephant Software’. Also, there are elephant feet found in Jon Ritman’s Batman game, so perhaps a nod towards that?

“I didn’t like the atmosphere (at Software Creations) so I moved back to Liverpool to rejoin the old Special FX crew who had started up a company called Elephant Software. I suggested a new name and Rage was born!”

Joffa Smith (ZX Specticle interview)

Solving a mixture of logical and more cryptic (yet signposted) puzzles, sprinkled with a liberal dose of hand to face combat, leads us to the finish line. It’s a lengthy, challenging journey that would have benefitted greatly from a save option. As it is, each campaign must be completed in a single sitting, and given that – in Joffa’s words – there are “hundreds and hundreds and hundreds” of unmappable screens to navigate and revisit, Caped Crusader would even have Ethan Hunt scratching his head in dismay. Superhuman longplayer Ironclaw can hurtle through it in just under an hour so you can safely add about 10 more to that for mere mortals.

Exploiting emulator save states you’ll get there eventually, leaving only the repetitive gameplay to contend with. There’s really very little to speak of; Caped Crusader is only such a protracted, uphill battle due to the necessity to retread the same labyrinthine paths.

Ten minutes in and you’ve pretty much seen everything on offer, even the finales only amounting to static congratulations screens. What developers should do is work on the conclusion first while they’re still energised and enthusiastic, with the shipping deadline as far into the distance as possible. Give kids something to rave about in the playground!

Immaculately drawn as these stills are, it’s not much of a reward for all the suffering we endure leading up to the final curtain call.

“Batman the Caped Crusader is basically a highly playable treat oozing atmosphere, and two completely different adventures make it an all round winner.”

Commodore Format (91%, C64, February 1991)

Had it not been for the ‘nice touch’ attention to detail and licence connection there would be little to differentiate the title from similar fayre. Still, it’s worth a dabble just to check out the quirky animation and comedic embellishments such as the riddler-esque puzzle clues. Some you might notice are a bit ‘of their time’ and may sail over the heads of non-UK residents, e.g. “Bruce’ll fix it”. A reference to the TV show ‘Jim’ll Fix It’, the one in which that old ‘scamp’ Jimmy Saville arranged for kids’ dreams to come true. I could have phrased that better. Hmm.

*Moonwalks nonchalantly away from the scene, hands in pockets, whistling* …backing up to a ladder before descending to the ground level. No, really, you can. Made in the ’80s, Wacko Jacko was a massive influence, popping up everywhere you looked… in the closet, Gotham City, under the bed. Oh god, how did we end up returning full circle to that topic?

Do the Bartman! There’s the connection, possibly-maybe. Michael Jackson provided the backing vocals and Bartman was a Batman spoof. Only that wasn’t released until November 1990. Doh!

No doubt all this was Joffa’s brainwave. Caped Crusader was to be his final commercially released Spectrum game before switching focus to the Atari ST.

“Jof has vacated the control tower, if indeed he ever went up there.

No living person has so perfidiously denied his own gifts – most of which are, incidentally, comic and exuberant rather than admonitory and bleak.

It may be his just reward, then, to be studied by people who don’t find him funny.”

– message posted on his home page subsequent to it closing with a view to a comeback refresh that never happened

“Once again the Amiga conversion is practically identical to the ST, with one notable exception – the soundtrack. This may seem like a fairly cosmetic difference, but just wait until you hear the classic Batman theme tune bursting from your monitor in glorious remixed stereo. It may not be to everyone’s taste but it’s certainly given an 80’s feel to the classic.”

The One (84%, Amiga, December 1988)

Much more Batman-y there’s Caped Crusader’s sampled sound effects, and the constant drum of its pertinent soundtrack courtesy of Keith Tinman (who also composed the music for the original Spectrum title); a playfully funky, upbeat remix of the TV show’s theme tune. Still, you might want to mute it after an hour or so as it’s the only music on offer!

“The only problems we had were to do with Bob Wakelin’s box artwork. Bob had worked as an illustrator for DC before and knew they might be a bit awkward. He was right – they made him reduce the size of Batman’s ears and make his cape look less aggressive (!??).”Joffa Smith

Lumbered with miniature ears, how would Batman hear Robin’s cries for help? Obviously you have to collect novelty prosthetic ears! A fake comedy nose completing the disguise, resulting in The Penguin failing to recognise his batty bete noir, allowing him to scoot by unimpeded. According to Paul Finnegan, we’d be safe regardless as “The Penguin sequence is the easy one. The idea with this plot is that it’s supposed to be an easy way to get into the game. The Joker part is much harder.” (TGM preview)

Play Caped Crusader having been spoilt by Ocean’s pacier 1989 upgrade and you’ll soon be yearning for some classic superhero biffing/boshing/kerplunking action. Even an alternative genre mini-game diversion to mix things up a bit.

That’s where the Crusader’s Cape comes unstuck, lost in the foggy midnight air – there simply isn’t sufficient variety or suspense to make it appealing. Charmingly Deluxe Painted and animated by Andy Rixon, tinselled with an abundance of memorable artistic flourishes, yet nowhere near thrilling enough to edge it into system-seller territory. I mean, you wouldn’t stick it in a bundley pack and call it… the name escapes me. Oh, Commodore did. Holy fantastic lightguns Batfans!

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